The history of chocolate begins in Latin America, where cacao trees grow wild. The people who first utilized cacao were the inhabitants of what is now Venezuela in northwestern South America. The Olmec civilization consumed a beverage made with chocolate thousands of years ago. It was used to fortify soldiers during marches and in battle. Little evidence remains of how the beverage was processed.
While researchers do not agree which Mesoamerican culture first domesticated the cacao tree, it is likely that cacao has been a cultivated crop for at least 3,000 years. Before that, it is certain that the seeds of wild cacao trees were gathered. Initially, a few cacao trees would be planted just inside the heavy rainforest, mixed with both wild and cultivated understory plants. Eventually, the cultivation grew to more specific plots of cacao, still under the canopy and within the rainforest.
1900 B.C. – 300 B.C.: The Olmec Indians, who lived in what is now southeast Mexico, are believed to be the first to grow cacao beans (“kakawa”) as a domestic crop.
Scientists have been able to confirm the presence of cacao in vessels around the world by evaluating the “chemical footprint” detectable in the micro-samples of contents that remain. Ceramic vessels with the residue from the preparation of chocolate beverages have been found at archaeological sites dating back to the Early Formative period (1900-900 BC). For example, one such vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico dates chocolate’s preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC. The Olmec civilization lasted to approximately 300 B.C.
300 B.C. – 500 A.D.: The Olmec, a very sophisticated society, gave much of their culture to the Maya, including “xocoatl”, (pronounced sho-KWA-til). Consumption of cocoa beans was restricted to the Mayan society’s elite, in the form of an unsweetened cocoa drink made from the ground beans.
600 -1000 A.D.: The Maya migrated into northern regions of South America and Mesoamerica, establishing the earliest known cocoa plantations in the Yucatan. Nobles drank frothy “cacau” from tall pottery beakers. Beans were a valuable commodity, used both as local and internal currency and also as units of calculation.
1200s: The Maya began trade with the Aztecs, and gave them cacau. The Aztecs called it “cacahuatl” (ca-ca-WAH-tel), meaning “warm or bitter liquid”. It was flavored with local spices (including chile, cinnamon, musk, pepper and vanilla), thickened with cornmeal, and then frothed in a bowl and served at room temperature. Sugar was not part of the ingredients to sweeten the drink, since “sugar was unknown to the Aztecs”.
1300s-1400s: The Aztec empire took over a sizable part of Mesoamerica. Cacahuatl became popular among the Aztec upper classes. The Aztecs were not able to grow cacao themselves, and therefore were forced to import it. All areas conquered by the Aztecs that grew cacao beans were ordered to pay cacao beans as a tax, or as the Aztecs called it, a “tribute”. The cacao bean became a form of currency. The Spanish conquistadors left records of the value of the cacao bean, noting, for instance, that 100 beans could purchase a canoe filled with fresh water or a turkey hen. The beans were restricted to noblemen, priests, officials, warriors, and the rich traders who supplied them.
The Aztecs associated cacao with the god Quetzacoatl, whom they believed had been condemned by the other gods for sharing chocolate with humans. Unlike the Maya of Yucatán, the Aztecs drank chocolate cold. It was consumed for a variety of purposes (a restorative, a medicinal revitalizer, a ceremonial beverage and an as ‘abetter’ of longevity), and was included in the rations of Aztec soldiers.
Montezuma II, the 9th emperor of the Aztecs, was one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the world. He was also known as The Chocolate King. At the height of his power, he had a stash of nearly a billion cacao beans. He reportedly drank 50 golden goblets of hot chocolate every day. It was thick, dyed red, and flavored with chili peppers.
1502: Cacao was tasted by Columbus on his fourth and last voyage to the New World. Columbus encountered a great Mayan trading canoe on the island of Guanaja, off Honduras, carrying a cargo of cocoa beans. He presented the King and Queen of Spain with the beans, but Ferdinand and Isabella saw no real worth in them. The beans were overlooked in favor of the many other treasures Columbus had found.
1519: Spanish explorer Hernan Cortès conquered part of Mexico. By chance, his arrival coincided with the expected return of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl—supposedly the god who had given cacao to the people and taught them how to cultivate it—from his travels. Quetzalcoatl was believed to be white-skinned and bearded, and Cortès was initially mistaken for the god. Hernan Cortès recorded the cacao usage in the Aztec court of Emperor Montezuma in San Juan de Ulloa (Vera Cruz, Mexico). Montezuma was rumored to have a billion beans in storage. Cortès and his fellow explorers tried chocolate and hated it. One writer labeled it “more a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity”. (Without sugar, cacao was fairly bitter!) Cortès built a cocoa plantation to “grow money” in the name of Spain, beginning a Spanish cocoa monopoly that lasted two centuries.
1527 or 1528: Cortès brought cacao beans, equipment, and recipes for preparing chocolate from Mexico to the Spanish court of King Charles V. It was greeted with excitement, but was heavily taxed, meaning only the rich could afford it. Monks, hidden away in Spanish monasteries, were appointed as the processors of the cocoa beans to keep chocolate a secret for nearly another century. It made a profitable industry for Spain, which planted cocoa trees in its overseas colonies. Conveniently, the Spanish had taken over many Caribbean islands, and on those islands was sugar. It didn’t take long for sugar to be added to chocolate, which made chocolate more appealing.
1544: Dominican friars took a delegation of Kekchi Mayan nobles from Alta Verapaz to visit Prince Philip of Spain. The Mayans brought gift jars of beaten cocoa, mixed and ready to drink. Spain and Portugal did not export the beloved drink to the rest of Europe for nearly a century. Early after its arrival, the Spanish replaced the chile with sugar and kept the cinnamon to make the bitter cacao beverage more to their liking. It was decided that the beverage tastes better warm. The most likely scenario for the development of the word “chocolate” is that the Spaniards combined the Maya word chocol, meaning “hot,” and the Aztec atl, meaning “water,” to produce chocolatl. The proper pronunciation of tl is “te.” It is surmised that the Spanish would not want to use the Aztec word, cacahuatl, because “caca” in Spanish is a vulgar word.
1565: The first record of how the cocoa drink is prepared was found in the notes of Benzoni, an explorer working for the Spanish army. The Spanish kept this secret from the rest of the world, with the hope they could keep their monopoly on the cocoa trade.
1585: The first official shipments of cocoa beans began arriving in Seville from Vera Cruz, Mexico.
1590: Spanish nuns in Oaxaca, Mexico were the first to sweeten chocolate with honey, cinnamon and cane sugar, making the drink popular with colonials. Spanish monks introduced the first sweetened drink to Spain around 1590. They sweetened it with honey and vanilla. For many Europeans, drinking chocolate (especially before it was sweetened) was an acquired taste. Spanish missionary Jose de Acosta, who lived in Peru in the late 1500s, described it this way:
“Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women, that are accustomed to the country, are very greedy of this Chocolaté. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that ‘chili’; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh.”
1606: An Italian traveler, Antonio Carletti, discovered chocolate in Spain. He took it to Italy, where chocolate-mania developed. Cioccolatieri opened in all major cities. From Italy, chocolate spread to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
1615: Spanish Princess Maria Theresa gave her fiancé Louis XIV of France an engagement gift of chocolate, packaged in an elegant, ornate chest. Their marriage was symbolic of the marriage of chocolate in the Spanish-Franco culture. The word of chocolate spread further throughout Europe.
1631: The first publication of a recipe for chocolate was by the Spanish doctor Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma and was based on the Aztec recipe. The bitter flavor was enhanced by adding almonds, anise, cinnamon, flowers, hazelnuts, roses of Alexandria and vanilla. The exact spices depended on the physical ailment.
1641: Cocoa was introduced to Germany by a German scientist named Johann Georg Voldkammer, who discovered it in Naples, Italy. The Germans instituted the habit of a cup of hot chocolate before bedtime.
1653: Chocolate was seen as having largely medicinal properties. In fact, the first official statement about chocolate was made by Bonavontura Di Aragon, brother of Cardinal Richelieu, describing the use of chocolate as stimulating the healthy functioning of the spleen and other digestive functions.
1657: The first chocolate house was opened in London…by a Frenchman! Coffee houses were already popular. One could go to a chocolate house to have a drink, play some cards, talk politics, etc. Eventually, the chocolate drinks began to include milk and cinnamon.
1659: Louis XIV gave the chocolate monopolies of the Paris chocolate drink trade and the French Royal Court to David Chaillou, a baker who made costly biscuits and cakes with chocolate. He is considered France’s first chocolatier.
1664: Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that he had been to a coffee house to drink “Jocolatte” and that it was “very good”.
1700s: Drinking chocolate expanded worldwide. Chilies disappeared as an ingredient except in Mexican mole sauces.
While in Jamaica in the early 1700s, Irish physician and naturalist Hans Sloane (1660-1753) came up with the idea of mixing the bitter local chocolate beverage with milk to improve its taste. He later patented the idea. It soon became popular back in England and quickly spread throughout Europe.
1712: By the turn of the 18th century, chocolate made its way back to the Americas. In little more than a decade, Massachusetts sea captains were bringing back cargoes of cocoa beans. Boston apothecary shops were advertising and selling chocolate imported from Europe.
1728: Fry set up the first chocolate factory in Bristol, England using hydraulic machinery to process and grind the cacao beans.
1730: Cocoa beans dropped in price from $3 per pound to being within the reach of more than just the very wealthy.
1732: A French inventor, Monsieur Dubuisson, invented a table mill for grinding chocolate.
1750: European countries colonized much of the world, and, in the process, they acquired cacao plantations that ensured their own supply of cocoa beans. The French colonized western India and Madagascar, the Dutch colonized Ceylon and Java, the Belgians, the Congo, the British, western India, the Germans, the Cameroon, and the Portuguese colonized Brazil.
1753: Swedish naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), was dissatisfied with the word “cacao”, so renamed it “theobroma,” Greek for “food of the gods”.
1765: Irish chocolate-maker John Hanan imported cocoa beans from the West Indies into Dorchester, Massachusetts, to refine with the help of American Dr. James Baker. The pair built America’s first chocolate mill and, by 1780, the mill was making BAKER’S chocolate.
1775–1783: During the Revolutionary War, soldiers were sometimes paid in chocolate.
1780: The first machine-made chocolate was produced in Barcelona, Spain.
1795: Dr. Joseph Fry of Bristol, England, employed a steam engine to grind cocoa beans, an invention that led to the manufacture of chocolate on a large factory scale.
1810: Venezuela was producing half the world’s cacao, and one-third of all chocolate products being manufactured in the world were being consumed by the Spaniards.
1819: The pioneer of Swiss chocolate-making, François Louis Callier, opened the first Swiss chocolate factory in Corsier, near Vevey.
1825: The Royal Navy purchased more chocolate than the rest of Britain. Nutritious, hot and non-alcoholic, it was considered a perfect drink for sailors on watch duty. Among sailors on duty in the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea, the cold wind from the northwest was known as a “chocolate gale.”
1828: Dutchman Coenraad Van Houten invented and patented a hydraulic cocoa press, to force the fat (cocoa butter) from roasted cacao beans to create cocoa powder. The powder was treated with alkaline salts so that it mixed more easily with water. The final product had a darker color, and the chocolate had a milder taste and smoother consistency. Since Van Houten was Dutch and patented his invention in Amsterdam, his alkalizing process became known as “dutching”. His invention helped cut prices. The creation of powdered chocolate made it easier to mix with water, sugar, and other ingredients to make chocolate a solid form. Many other chocolate makers began to build on Van Houten’s success to make a variety of chocolate products.
1839: A German baker named Stollwerck started a business that grew into one of the largest companies in Germany, producing a variety of chocolate products and brands.
1840: The first pressed chocolate tablets and pastilles were produced in Belgium by the chocolate company Berwaerts.
1847: Joseph Fry’s grandson, Francis Fry, then head of the firm J.S. Fry & Sons, discovered a way to mix some of the cocoa butter back into the dutched chocolate (cocoa powder) and added sugar, creating a paste that can be molded. He called it “eating chocolate”. This was the first modern chocolate bar. Conching had not yet been invented; it was a rough, grainy chocolate instead of the smooth, silky bar we know today.
1851: Prince Albert’s Exposition in London was the first time that Americans were introduced to bonbons, chocolate creams, hand candies (called “boiled sweets”), and caramels.
1852: German chocolate cake did not originate in Germany. In 1852, Sam German developed a sweet baking bar for Baker’s Chocolate Co. The product was named in honor of him – Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate.
1861: Richard Cadbury created the first known heart-shaped candy box for Valentine’s Day.
1865: The first gianduja, chocolate mixed with hazelnut paste, was created in Italy.
1868: John Cadbury mass-marketed the first boxes of chocolate candies.
Quakers, such as the Cadburys, amassed a great fortune producing drinking chocolate as an alternative to alcohol.
1875: Daniel Peter of Vevey, Switzerland (who had developed an accidental interest in chocolate due to his affection for Fanny Cailler, the eldest daughter of chocolatier François-Louis Cailler) experimented for eight years before finally inventing, at age 31, a means of making milk chocolate using condensed milk. The milk has been perfected by his neighbor Henri Nestlé, a food scientist.
1879: Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé formed the Nestlé Company, which later became the world’s largest producer of chocolate.
Also in 1879: Rodolphe Lindt of Berne, Switzerland, invented the conching machine, which heats and rolls chocolate in order to refine it to a smooth consistency. The result was a more smooth and creamy chocolate that melted on the tongue. Up to that point, even the finest chocolate had a grainy character. After warm chocolate is conched for seventy-two hours in a long narrow trough, and has more cocoa butter added to it, it is possible to create chocolate fondant and other creamy forms of chocolate. (Today, conching can be finished in 12 hours.)
1884: Félix Bonnat founded the Bonnat Chocolate Shop. Shortly afterward, he created the French praline.
1896: Leonard Hershfield invented the Tootsie Roll. It is named after his daughter.
1899: The Tobler firm, founded in 1868, started to produce its own chocolate. The Toblerone nougat, almond, and honey chocolate bar was born.
Late 1800s: Major companies had begun growing cacao on large plantations, clearing rainforest to provide open land. It was at this time that the extremely low pollination rate of cacao (1 in 3000) was noticed, but no one paid much attention. Moving cacao from the rainforest to plantations took it farther away from the habitat of the midges which pollinate cacao trees.
1900: Milton Hershey created a model factory town called Hersheyville, dedicated to the production of chocolate. The specialty was the Hershey Kiss. Around 1900, the price of cacao and sugar dropped tremendously, and Hershey was using modern, mass-production techniques. Both helped to make chocolate affordable to the masses. Hershey sold his caramel business in 1900 for $1 million to focus on chocolate.
Queen Victoria sent her New Year’s greetings to the British troops stationed in South Africa during the Boer War in the form of a specially molded chocolate bar.
About 1900: A machine called the enrober was invented to replace the task of hand-dipping chocolate.
1906: The first-known published recipe for chocolate brownies appeared, in The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, edited by Fanny Merritt Farmer. A reference often given for the first publication of brownies, in the 1897 Sears and Roebuck Catalogue, is erroneous. That recipe is not for a chocolate and flour baked brownie bar, but for a molasses candy also called brownies. The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book recipe used flour and two squares of Baker’s chocolate.
Also in 1906: Milton Hershey’s birthplace (Derry Church, Pennsylvania) was renamed Hershey.
1910: Canadian Arthur Ganong marketed the first nickel chocolate bar.
1912: Jean Neuhaus invented the chocolate shell that can be filled with soft centers and nut pastes, which offered a vast variety in comparison to the previous dipped and enrobed chocolate.
1913: Swiss confiseur Jules Séchaud of Montreux introduced a machine process for manufacturing filled chocolates and created the first box of filled chocolates.
1920: Jean Neuhaus’ daughter-in-law invented the ballotin, the rectangular box with molded insets that protects individual pieces of chocolate from rolling around.
1920: The Kestekides family launched the Leonidas brand in Belgium.
1920s: Chocolate bars became individual-sized. They started to be made in 30g and 45g sizes (1 ounce and 1.5 ounces) in addition to 150g (5 ounces). They were also made into tablet shapes for snacking.
1922: Twenty-two years after Hershey’s kisses debut, Francesco Buitoni, a relative of the family known for making pasta, launched Baci (Italian for “kiss”). His chocolate kisses have a hazelnut in the center.
1925: Barry Callebaut began the production of chocolate couverture in Belgium. (It is not documented which company actually made the first couverture.)
Also in 1925: The New York Cocoa Exchange began in New York City.
1926: Belgian chocolatier Joseph Draps started the Godiva Company to compete with Hershey’s and Nestlé’s American chocolate market.
1930: Nestlé made its first white chocolate, named Galak (though it was called different names, such as Milkbar or Alpine White, in different countries). During the 1930s, brand names became increasingly important. After two years of research, Nestlé launched the Black Magic bar.
1939: Nestle introduced semisweet chocolate morsels.
1941: M&Ms were created as a means for soldiers to enjoy chocolate without it melting.
1947: Hundreds of Canadian kids went on strike and boycotted chocolate after the price of a chocolate bar jumped from 5 to 8 cents.
1980: A story of (chocolate) espionage hit the world press when an apprentice of the Swiss company of Suchard-Tobler unsuccessfully attempted to sell secret chocolate recipes to Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.
1986: Valrhona introduced the concept of the single origin chocolate bar, making their first with beans exclusively from South America. The 70% cacao bar was named Guanaja in honor of the island of Guanaja, off Honduras, where Christopher Columbus first tasted chocolate almost 500 years earlier. They called it Grand Cru chocolate.
1990s: Following Valrhona’s pioneering efforts, other “designer chocolate bars” debuted, including bars made from the beans of single plantations.
The new generation of chocolatiers knows no bounds. The cuisine of the late 20th century has logically found its way to chocolate: exotic spices such as saffron, curry and lemongrass are now commonplace in chocolate, as are everyday kitchen foods such as basil, goat cheese and olive oil. Most appropriately, chocolate has returned to its Mesoamerican roots. Many artisan chocolatiers now offer some version of “Aztec” chocolate, spiced with the original “new world” flavors of chile and cinnamon.
Chocolate history has had its dark side. Slave-like conditions and child labor still produce much of the world’s chocolate. Huge sections of rainforest have been razed to make room for cacao trees. Fortunately, chocolate connoisseurs are buying more and more Fair Trade chocolate, which helps insure better working conditions for farmers and helps preserve higher quality cacao varieties, like criollo.
The chocolate market has seen growth in organic and kosher brands, and a high percentage of cacao in chocolate is recognized as a functional food, delivering antioxidants. It seems that the Aztecs were right about the health-giving properties of cacao.